Myanmar is a neighboring country of Bangladesh with long borders. Bangladesh and Myanmar share a land border of approximately 271 km, and a maritime border, political and economic issues, and many other things such as culture, religion, etc, and the two countries are linked historically, socially as well as commercially.
Myanmar has huge natural resources such as oil, gas, forestry, fisheries agricultural land, and mineral resources. Two neighboring countries, China and India are both beneficiaries through maintaining friendly relations with Myanmar. Both China and India are using Myanmar’s ports, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean for exports and imports. They have also invested a huge amount of money in the different development projects, including oil, gas, electricity, regional connectivity, and special economic zones in Rakhine state. The result of the study shows that the relationship between Bangladesh and Myanmar is not so good diplomatically. Bangladesh, being a close neighbor has not been able to benefit from Myanmar’s natural strategic location and trade and investment. The crisis of the Rohingya ethnic minority occurs as a result of the lack of intimate relationship between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
For Bangladesh Rohingya refugees are an extra burden and security threat. They are extra pressure on Bangladesh’s political and social life. Rohingya issue emerges as a big challenge for Bangladesh. There are some other issues that are responsible to increase tension between Bangladesh and Myanmar. These are land border management, maritime boundary issues, trafficking, illegal trade, etc.
Realism is an approach to the study and practice of international politics. It emphasizes the role of the nation-state and makes a broad assumption that all nation-states are motivated by national interests or at best, national interests disguised as moral concerns. At its most fundamental level, the national interests in generic and easy to define: all states seek to preserve their political autonomy and their territorial integrity. Once these two interests have been secured, however, National interests may take different forms. Some states may have an interest in securing more resources or land; other states may wish to expand their own political or economic systems into other areas; some states may merely wish to be left alone.
Generally speaking, however, the national interests must be defined in terms of power. National power has an absolute meaning since it can be defined in terms of military, economic, political, diplomatic, or even cultural resources. But for a realist, power is primarily a relative term; does a state have the ability to defend itself against the power of another state? Does a state have the ability to coerce another state to change that state’s policies?
This emphasis on relative and not absolute power derives from the realist conception of the international system which is for the realist, an anarchical environment. All states have to rely upon their own resources to secure their interests, enforce whatever agreements they may have entered into with other states, or maintain desirable domestic and international order. The use of force to preserve the decentralized system is regulated by a system called the balance of power.
Bangladesh – Myanmar Relations In The Context Of Historical Perspective
Myanmar is regarded as a buffer between the two Asian superpowers, China and India. Its geographical location and natural resources have given it a significant position in the south, South East Asian, and North East regions. Myanmar got independence from Britain in 1948. The ancient name of Myanmar was Burma.
Like Myanmar, Bangladesh was also under British colonial rule till 1947. Bangladesh obtained its independence from Pakistan in 1971 through a war of huge bloodshed. Bangladesh has some similarities with Myanmar in some regards. For instance, both the countries are anti-colonial and both have experienced varying degrees of ethnic clashes. Both countries are developing and are striving for development, prosperity, security, and friendship. Myanmar has 123 miles long border crossing by the people of the two countries is very common. At present, illegal entrance by Bangladesh’s citizens into Myanmar’s territory has decreased dramatically due to border tensions and security concerns.
The official relationship between the two countries commenced while Bangladesh was part of Pakistan (1947-1971). The formal relationship between the independent Bangladesh and Myanmar was established on January 13, 1972. Since then, Myanmar had a good relationship with Bangladesh. Nevertheless, there have been several deadly clashes along with the border areas between the two countries. The relationship between the neighboring nation has been stable and peaceful till 2017. Subsequently, Myanmar started to operate military attacks on the Rohingyas to evacuate them due to religious, political, economic, and cultural reasons.
Bangladesh-Myanmar Relations: A Theoretical Analysis
National interest is the key concept in any discussion of foreign policy. Here, realist theory is applied to conceptualize Bangladesh-Myanmar relations by considering national interest and national security. In this discussion, there are three assumptions explored. Firstly national interest of Myanmar is very much colored by the security approach. Secondly, Bangladesh-Myanmar relations take different faces at different times on the basis of national interest and national security. Thirdly, non-state actors create a suitable environment for sharing the common interests of states.
National interest is a broad concept. National interest can describe the aspirations of the state, it can also be used operationally, in application to the specific policies and programs pursuit, it can be used polemically in political argument to explain, rationalize, or criticize. In Myanmar “National Interest” is used operationally to establish the Military’s security-centric policy for power. State power and the role of the Military get the highest priority by its constitution. Due to 50 years of military rule, the constitution is military-dominated. Myanmar’s military rulers always adopt a state-centric national security policy approach.
Myanmar’s military rulers never consider ethnic people as an important part of the national community. Myanmar’s military rulers reduce the economic development of ethnic areas. In these circumstances, thousands of Rohingya came into Bangladesh for economic and political shelter. For Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees are an extra burden and security threat. They are extra pressure on our political and social life. Rohingya issue emerges as a big challenge for Bangladesh and Myanmar on the basis of national interest.
There are some other issues that are responsible to increase tension between Bangladesh and Myanmar. These are land border management, maritime boundary issues, trafficking, illegal trade, etc. All these issues are causes and effects of national interest and national security. Each issue generates fewer or more security threats for the state. In these circumstances, nonstate actors(BIMSTEC, ASEAN, BCIM, etc) produce a suitable environment for mutual understanding and sharing a common interest in state-to-state relations.
Both internal factors and external factors are responsible to bring a dramatic change in Myanmar’s domestic political culture. In the light of this change, the national interest of Myanmar is reshaped and balanced. The international community is showing interest in Myanmar. Bangladesh is also seeking key interest in Myanmar. Bangladesh – Myanmar relations have taken a new turn for mutual benefit on the basis of National interest. However, Bangladesh – Myanmar relations have been overshadowed by contentious issues.
The main issues of bilateral relations are considered as follows:
The Rohingya Issue:
In discussing the relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar it is important to talk about the Rohingya issue which is a big threat to Bangladesh. Rohingya people are the ethnic minorities who have been living in the state of Rakhine in Myanmar bordering Cox’s Bazar for several hundred years. However, the military-backed government of Myanmar does not recognize them as their citizen. In 1974, the Ne win government denied their citizenship officially. In 1978 when around 200,000 members of this ethnic group escaped the country, due to Myanmar arm’s operation Dragon king. Under an agreement of 1978 both the countries Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to solve the issue. Myanmar took back almost all the Rohingya migrated to Bangladesh during 1978-79. But again in 1992, almost 250,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh to escape persecution.
Bangladesh took the initiative to repatriate the Rohingya refugees and the government of Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement in April 1992 for returning Rohingya from Bangladesh to Myanmar. Rohingyas’ future looks as uncertain as ever. Uprooted from their homeland by a campaign of targeted violence launched by the Myanmar military in August 2017, some 700,000 ethnic Rohingya refugees sought safety just across the border in Bangladesh. They joined thousands of others from the community who had fled earlier episodes of violence and abuse. Today there are more than 860,000 Rohingya living in Bangladesh. It is important to mention here that at present the Rohingyas are creating so many socio-economic problems.
The issue is also posing political and security threats to Bangladesh and the different regions of South Asia and Southeast Asia. The district of Cox’s Bazar has undergone a tremendous change in terms of development, environment, and tourism after a huge number of Rohingya influxes to the area. The impact of the Rohingya influx in Bangladesh is multifaceted, and it has a long-term devastating effect on the local people, economy, and environment.
The Rohingya issue remains a security concern for Bangladesh. It is alleged that undocumented Rohingyas are engaged in unlawful activities like smuggling, drug trafficking. The conflict between Rohingyas and Bangladeshi’s threatening social cohesion in the region. Moreover, the Rohingya refugees are collecting Bangladesh passports and going to the third country where their activities are affecting the image of Bangladesh.
Now, Bangladesh can strengthen diplomatic endeavors with Myanmar to discuss political issues and solve bilateral disputes like Rohingya repatriation and border management. It needs to emphasize the Rohingya issue remains the most important political debate between the two countries. A bilateral solution to the problem should get priority over other political concerns.
The Maritime Boundary Issue:
There has been a long dispute between Bangladesh and Myanmar regarding the maritime boundary demarcation. On 14th March 2012, the Hamburg-based Law of the sea tribunal (ITLOS) delivered a historical judgment on the delimitation of the maritime boundary between Bangladesh and Myanmar. This judgment, which is the first of its kind before the tribunal has marked a distinctive legal success for Bangladesh. The dispute is about the demarcation of the territorial water, continental shelves, and exclusive economic zone of both Bangladesh and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal. The judgment also marks important precedence that will be pertinent for resolving future maritime boundary disputes.
Bangladesh has clearly won the case on the most substantial issues of the dispute. Bangladesh gained 111000 square kilometers of an exclusive economic zone in the Bay of Bengal. The tribunal also awarded Bangladesh 12 miles territorial sea around St. Martine Island. It is a positive development for both countries. Bangladesh has also gained several other important economic benefits from this verdict.
The debate over maritime boundary was affecting Bangladesh -Myanmar relations. When both the countries were inviting foreign companies to explore natural resources in the maritime area. The solution to the problem opened new opportunities for both countries. Beyond the EEZ(200 nm) Myanmar can go fishing while Bangladesh has the right to explore sea-bed resources. In case Bangladesh finds resources in that area it may have to consult with Myanmar for the exploration.
The first talks on delineating the maritime boundary between Bangladesh and Myanmar were held in 1974, shortly after Bangladesh’s independence. At this time, offshore energy prospects were severely constrained by the lack of energy investment and insufficient deep-water drilling technology. With few other incentives pushing either side to quickly resolve the boundary dispute talks occurred only sporadically before altogether in 1986. After a hiatus of over two decades, talks finally resumed in November 2007 and continued throughout 2008, generally as an important but not central item in the bilateral discussion. Progress was limited because neither side was willing to compromise on the fundamental principle of boundary delimitation.
The demarcation of the maritime boundaries between Bangladesh and Myanmar has been welcomed in both countries. However, much remains to be seen once the parties start exploring Bay of Bengal resources after the verdict of ITLOS. Both the countries should come forward out of their past hangover in particular over the Rohingya issue. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar should approach their oceanic space from a much broader perspective. Oceanic management requires the cooperation of holistic nature. It is an area where peace is to be maintained in perpetuity so that the oceanic resources can be harnessed in a cooperative rather than conflictive manner. The realization should prevail in both Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Land Border Management:
Bangladesh -Myanmar shares 271 km of land border. To achieve a stable relationship of bilateral relations, effective and cooperative management of the common border is important. However, security management in the border region is necessary to ensure bilateral trade and investment. Border security is also important for developing connectivity. In 2009 when the Myanmar government started fencing 40 km of border, the Bangladesh government expressed its reservation on such construction. Later both the countries discussed the issues and the government of Myanmar confirmed that fencing is only for preventing illicit networks on the border. Both the countries agreed that
“construction of the barbed wire fence will not affect relations between the two nations “
Myanmar has completed the fencing of 40 kilometers in 2011. On the other hand, the Bangladesh Myanmar border region has been identified by the Bangladesh Department of Narcotics control is an important point for illegal drugs that are imported to Bangladesh. The Rohingya are recruited as carriers, intermediaries, or traffickers. The Rohingya militant groups are a major security concern for Bangladesh. Among the groups, the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF), Rohingya Solidarity Organisation(RSO) are considered to be the major groups posing a threat to Bangladesh’s internal security.
Smuggling of arms and ammunition is considered another area in which both Bangladesh and Myanmar need to cooperate. In this respect arms and drug trafficking in Bangladesh -Myanmar border has emerged as a concern for both countries. The countries need to cooperate to dismantle such illicit networking. A secured border will stabilize bilateral relations and will make their relations trustworthy.
Trade And Investment:
Being close neighbors, trade relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar are not reached at an expected level. In 1996, a border trade agreement was signed between two governments. This allows businessmen to open letters of credit up to US$ 5000 dollars per day. This modality probably encourages widespread under-invoicing and the real value of this trade, therefore, is probably not reflected in the available figures. Bangladesh and Myanmar are progressing toward effective bilateral relations and trade between the two countries have started a new way since 2011.
The bilateral trade between the two countries is improving also. During the fiscal year of 2011- 12, Bangladesh exported goods to Myanmar worth US $13.45 million and imported goods worth the US $65 million. In the 2012-13 fiscal years the average amount of border trade was US $6.3 million.
The export amount was $6.2 million and the import amount was $87000. Even though trade volume was low, the potential is very high. Though the balance of trade between the two countries is heavily in favor of Myanmar as Bangladesh imports many food items from the neighboring country, the trade gap is expected to be narrowed down as Myanmar has started to import some new materials from Bangladesh from early 2012, following visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to Yangon in late 2011.
Trade Between Bangladesh and Myanmar is likely to remain stable despite the two countries being locked in a dispute over the Rohingya crisis, stakeholders said. Although trade across the shared land border has been suspended since military operations began in Rakhine state in August, Bangladesh traders say the devaluation of the Myanmar currency as a result of the crisis may actually boost overall trade. Bangladesh’s trade deficit with Myanmar has increased to more than TK 3000 crore over the last six years, despite a number of barriers between the two neighboring countries.
Energy And Natural Resources:
Myanmar’s geography and natural resources as well as Bangladesh’s emerging middle class and potential market indicate the prospect of bilateral business relations between the two neighboring countries. The Arakan Mountain range separates Rakhaine and chin states bordering Bangladesh from the rest of Myanmar. These two Myanmar states process almost infinite natural resources which include limestone, timber, bamboo, marine products, and a variety of valuable minerals. The discovery of estimated 16 TCF of proven gas reserves in Rakhine state has opened up a new corridor of possibilities for industrial development for Myanmar’s future generation. The Reserve of proven natural gas of Myanmar can also be beneficial for Bangladesh.
The setting up of a gas pipeline between Bangladesh and Myanmar and a fertilizer factory based on this gas could, on one hand, fulfill energy security for Bangladesh and on the other hand facilitate their agricultural need, thus ensuring a win-win situation for both. Myanmar’s land lease policy is quite attractive and Bangladeshi investors may take advantage of this offer, which will turn lead to increase trade with Bangladesh because many of the products of these agro-based industries will find a good market in Bangladesh.
Realist theory emphasizes the role of the nation-state and makes a broad assumption that all nation-states are motivated by national interests or, at best, national interests disguised as a moral concern. Realists argued that the pursuit of power and national interests were the major forces driving world politics. In this assignment, I have focused on National interest and national security as the key concepts that drive Bangladesh and Myanmar relations in different times in different issues. State security is the highest priority to Myanmar from the very beginning. Myanmar’s military rulers always pursuit for power and they show themselves as ‘Guardians’ of the state. Myanmar’s state security highlights state security. There are many ethnic groups in Myanmar that are involved in conflict with each other for wealth and power.
Myanmar’s military rulers never consider them as an important part of their nation. Myanmar’s ethnic people are deployed in various sectors. They feel insecure themselves. And thus thousands of Rohingya came to Bangladesh from Myanmar for seeking a better livelihood. But Rohingya refugees are an extra burden for Bangladesh. They hamper Bangladesh‘s national security. They involve in illegal activities. For this reason, serious tension has arisen many times between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Both Bangladesh and Myanmar try to secure their national interest. So I have focused that national interest and national security play the main role to enhance new challenges in the state to state relations. In this assignment, I have discussed Bangladesh-Myanmar relations on the basis of key points (national interest, national security, and power, etc.) and key players(state actor, non-state actor, military ruler, democratic authority, etc.) reflecting realist view.
The ongoing situation of Bangladesh-Myanmar relations is very sensitive. There is no doubt that bilateral problems have emerged on the basis of national interest and national security. Specially Rohingya refugee problems in Bangladesh have become a security threat to our national interest. However, Myanmar’s domestic politics and policy are very much colored by its state-centric security approach. Myanmar’s constitution is military-dominated, which creates anarchy.
The national interest of Myanmar is used operationally to fulfill the military’s self-interest and power. The rights of ethnic people are ignored in Myanmar. As a result, Rohingya refugees are victims of Myanmar’s domestic policy. They have been spending an insecure and uncertain life. For this reason, they came to Bangladesh from Myanmar for seeking a better livelihood. This Rohingya refugee is one of the main issues of Bangladesh Myanmar relations. But it is a matter of thinking that Myanmar’s domestic culture has been changed dramatically. Myanmar’s economy has opened for the international community.
Democratic reform is going on in Myanmar. That is why world attention is on it. Now we have the opportunity to open up Myanmar. We must have good relations with Myanmar because of our own interests. Bangladesh needs strong diplomatic movement to solve the Rohingya issue and enrich bilateral relations with Myanmar as a neighboring country. To strengthen Bangladesh -Myanmar relations through connectivity bilaterally (state to state-level) and multilaterally (BIMSTEC, BCIM, ASEAN, ARF, SAARC, etc.) can be a great opportunity for both countries. In this perspective, different kinds of development activities (seminars and conferences on economic issues, cultural exchange, and social outreach programs and sound health for all, etc.) should be organized by both countries.
Though it is unavoidable to national interest and national security for both countries, a new suitable environment should be found out for common interests in order to strengthen bilateral relations and regional power position.